google_moralityThis post will be pretty clinical in nature but I think it is important to understand just what goes through the mind of an individual that detonates a bomb at the finish line of a marathon, or enters an elementary school and unloads on unsuspecting children, or the bully that relentlessly victimized that Aspie at school, or that spouse that steps out on his partner, or any number of us who have compromised our convictions, great or small.

Albert Bandura (born December 4, 1925, in Mundare, Alberta, Canada) is a psychologist who is the David Starr Jordan Professor Emeritus of Social Science in Psychology at Stanford University. For almost six decades, he has been responsible for contributions to many fields of psychology, including social cognitive theory, therapy and personality psychology, and was also influential in the transition between behaviorism and cognitive psychology.  He developed the Moral Disengagement theory in which he describes eight different mechanisms by which people disengage from moral self-control.

Reprehensible Behaviors

One important factor in engaging pro-social thinking/behaviors is the need for activation.  Moral self-control does not come into play if it is not triggered by empathy.  If moral self-control is only partially triggered or fails to activate completely, the individual will become disengaged humane conduct and anti-social behavior can be shown without the negative consequences of one’s self.

  •  Moral Justification:  this is an attempt to describe how the behavior serves a moral right, acceptable or even desirable outcome or purpose.
  •  Soft Labeling:  The label given to certain behaviors that attempts to “clean up” the negative or harmful actions, making them smoother and more acceptable.
  •  Advantageous Comparison:  This is the tendency to contrast negative or harmful behaviors against perceived greater wrongdoings.

Detrimental Effects

A necessity for moral control is the acknowledgement of one’s own wrongdoing.  If, however, the responsibility for the harm one causes is obscured, the possibility of acknowledgement of responsibility and self-control is lessened drastically.

  •  Displacement of Responsibility:  This works by distorting the relationship between actions and the effects they cause. People behave in ways they would normally oppose if a legitimate authority accepts responsibility for the consequences of that behavior.
  •  Diffusion of Responsibility:  This is when the services of many people, where each performs a task that seems harmless in itself, can enable people to behave inhumanely collectively, because no single person feels responsible.

For moral self-control to exist, not only the behavior itself and responsibility for the behavior have to be accepted, but also the (negative) effects of the anti-social behavior have to acknowledge. 

  •  Minimizing, Ignoring, or Distort the Consequences:  The farther removed individuals are from the destructive consequences, the weaker the restraining power of guilt is regarding the effects of the behavior.

View of the Victim

The degree to which moral self-control takes place depends on the way the individual perpetrators view the people they mistreat.

  •  Dehumanizing:  These means the loss of all human features, i.e., feelings, hopes, wishes, concerns, and therefore are viewed as an inhumane “object”.
  •  Attribution of Blame:  Similar to the mechanisms of displacement and diffusion of responsibility, the consequences of a person’s wrongdoings can only be dealt with if the person accepts responsibility for his or her engagement in anti-social behavior.  Often the victim or external source is blamed as the cause of the destructive behavior, therefore the behavior is seem only as a reaction to provocation through other circumstances, leading to feelings of justification or self-righteousness.

We are all capable of these kind of justification regardless of the offense.  Whether you are lying to your boss to get off work early or are manipulating a loved one to get what you want.  These mechanisms are in play. 

Pay attention this week to your own thoughts and behaviors as well as those of your students to see if you can identify moral disengagement.  If you can, then maybe we’re all in need of some supernatural interventions.